What is it about human nature that cannot stand “outsiders”—even relative outsiders—getting in on “insider” stuff? Eldad and Medad were even on the list of the seventy elders chosen by Moses (First Reading). But they were absent when the elders gathered for the Lord's distribution of the prophetic spirit. When it was discovered that they had nonetheless received the prophetic spirit in absentia, Joshua flew into a jealous rage. “Moses, my lord, stop them!”
If Joshua is moved by an exclusive spirit, Moses is impelled by an inclusive one: “Would that all of the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” Moses' question to Joshua is pointed: “Are you jealous for my sake?” Apparently the expected answer is No. It is a rhetorical question, confronting Joshua in a moment of selfish preoccupation with control over what he perceived as right order.
It is obvious why this reading is paired with the episode of the “strange exorcist” in Mark (Gospel). John, one of the three in an inner circle within the Twelve (an insider among insiders) is disturbed when they discover someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name even though he does not “follow” the Twelve. It is Joshua and Moses all over again. Like Moses, Jesus responds with an inclusive impulse, “Do not prevent him. … Whoever is not against us is for us.”
The possible parallels to these episodes are numerous. The question of attitudes toward Christians of other denominations comes to mind. For here are relative “outsiders,” that is, people who do not belong to our group, who are indeed often doing some powerful things in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ challenge in this regard is obvious enough.
But the Gospel reading does not stop there. Jesus’ teaching (or Mark's ordering of it) turns from the complaint to the complainer, the petulant Joshua or John within us all, as if to say, “If you want to practice some decisive exclusion, attend to yourself. Instead of cutting people out of the action, maybe you have some personal cutting to attend to.” Jesus communicates this idea in some famously stark images: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.”
We do not like the picture, but who could argue with the general principle? We act on it all this time in the world of health care. Better to amputate the gangrenous member than to mortally infect the whole body. Better to cut through the abdominal wall and repair the hernia than to risk infection from a strangulated intestine. Better to recall twenty-five million pounds of ground beef than to risk further sickness and possible death from E. coli bacteria.
But how does this principle apply to the life of discipleship? Is Jesus really advocating cutting off hand or foot or plucking out the eye? Nothing in his healing ministry suggests this. But there is a workable principle here: be decisive, even radical, in your choices, when it comes to your journey toward the reign of God.
For example, in the context of the Christian covenant, commitment to a spouse means you need to cut off any other sexual relationship. If alcohol is addictive for you, drop it entirely. If the television threatens to vitiate normal family communication, put it out of the living room. If the job compromises your conscience, and the boss will not hear of any changes of policy, maybe you need to quit.
If today's Gospel reading seems to join very diverse and disconnected sayings, they may come together like this: we are challenged to be inclusive with regard to people we perceive as encroaching “outsiders” (be brother to the other; sister to the visitor).
At the same time, we are encouraged to take some of our instinct for decisive exclusion and address it to aspects of our lives that may need that kind of radical surgery if our life with God is to be preserved and enhanced.